Is It a Vocoder, a Talk Box, or a Cosmic Communicator?

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In case you haven’t heard the robotic voice announcing its return, the vocoder is back in a big way. From electro-rockers like Black Moth Super Rainbow and Daft Punk to hip-hoppers like Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Wayne, it’s all the rage for singers to haul out this cheesy effect and make themselves sound like cyborgs. Will the same thing happen for the vocoder’s cousin, the talk box? The new issue of the vinyl collectors’ magazine Wax Poetics profiles an artist who helped bring the talk box to the masses in the 1970s, Zapp leader Roger Troutman.

A brief studio lesson: The vocoder and the talk box can make similar sounds, but they employ wholly different processes. The vocoder essentially makes the human voice sound like an instrument by deconstructing and reconstructing it electronically, while the talk box makes an instrument sound like the human voice by directing a note through a tube and into the singer’s mouth. The mouth then acts as a sound chamber.

“You’re shaping the sound,” Lester Troutman, bandmate and brother of Roger, tells the magazine.

If you’re familiar with the vernacular of ’70s radio, you’ve heard the talk box: Think of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way,” Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” or Zapp’s “I Want to Be Your Man” and “More Bounce to the Ounce.”

“Talk boxes and vocoders are confused more than good and bad,” writes Wax Poetics, noting that perhaps the talk box would be better known if it had adopted some of Roger Troutman’s or Bootsy Collins’ nicknames for it.

Troutman called it the Ghetto Robot, the Electric Country Preacher, and the Nasty Straw (the drool-drenched tube could be a source of infection), while Bootsy called it the Magic Babbler, the Snake Charmer, and the Cosmic Communicator.

Check out the accompanying Analog Out column by Peter Kim, who traces talk-box history and links to several videos, including Stevie Wonder using the talk box on Sesame Street, Roger Troutman using it in the studio, and a clip about how to make a “ghetto” talk box.

Source: Wax Poetics (article not available online)

Image by daniel spils, licensed under Creative Commons.

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